When Akash Chokshi began his first semester of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, he did what most of his peers did: After each new class, he went to the campus bookstore and parted ways with hundreds of dollars.
"When you're new to university, you want the book on the first day," he says. "You don't think about saving money."
But after realizing each semester would cost $500 to $600, Mr. Chokshi, now 25, knew he needed to shop around.
According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the average postsecondary student in Canada spends about $500 to $1,000 for textbooks and course materials each semester – with students in engineering and applied sciences usually hit the hardest – even in this day of the e-reader. (Canadian publishers have been trying to convince instructors to assign eBooks, but many still list the traditional versions on course outlines and direct students to on- and off-campus bookstores for purchase.)
While used bookstores have long been the go-to alternative to campus shops, the demand for cheap substitutes for brand-new texts has inspired innovative solutions among buyers and sellers alike.
Some students rent and some look online for deals, while others sell directly to their peers (whom they sometimes stalk outside lecture halls). Others turn to legally questionable means, which has prompted some publishers and retailers to adjust prices accordingly.
By his last year of school, Mr. Chokshi was paying a fraction of what he had in his first year for all his course materials.
His signature trick? Instead of getting a hardcover copy of one textbook at the university's book store for $150, he bought the soft-cover international version online from a depot in India for just $20.
Indeed, some of his classmates travelled to India in the summer and brought back suitcases full of these texts – often purchased for $5 a pop – and resold them to others. But the deal-seekers have to put up with the "Not for sale in North America" stamp on the cover.
While buying overseas editions saves students a bundle, the practice of importing those titles is technically illegal. According to the Copyright Act, publishers of non-Canadian books can designate an exclusive distributor for their books and prohibit all others from distributing the same title.
Distributors can also tack on an extra 10 to 15 per cent import tax to the cost of the book, which explains the difference between Canadian and U.S. prices.
There are other get-books-cheaper gambits.
Chris Tabor, general manager of Queen's University's bookstore in Kingston, says he embraces competition and even recommends used bookstores and online resources to students. What he's not a fan of, though, is the growing problem of producing and purchasing photocopied texts.
In January, the RCMP seized 2,700 counterfeit textbooks and arrested 13 people at various copy stores in Montreal. They estimated the illegally reproduced books were worth $545,000.
In reaction to the illegal trade of course materials, publishers are changing their ways. This year, the price point of most offerings from Pearson – a major textbook publisher – will be at par with U.S. prices.
But what students really want are downloads for tablets and e-readers, which, beyond being more portable than heavy textbooks, are much cheaper.
Sayeeda Hussain, a spokeswoman for McGraw-Hill Ryerson Canada, one of the country's biggest textbook publishers, says about 90 per cent of the company's books are available in digital format for the iPad, Kindle or Sony Reader. The price differences are steep: A traditional textbook that costs $125.95 would sell for $60 to $80 in digital format. While printed textbooks are still preferred by students in most disciplines, eBooks outsell their physical equivalents in the fields of accounting, management and hard sciences, Ms. Hussain says.
While Canadian publishers have been making the switch, Mr. Tabor says, they haven't all moved as quickly as their U.S. counterparts. The stumbling point is at the retail level, Ms. Hussain says.
Amazon.com has a Kindle textbook rental program for its U.S. customers, but has yet to roll out the service here.
And students still prefer the tactile experience of using a physical textbook, Mr. Tabor says. "[They]tell us they will read from the physical book and study with the electronic book."
Roxanne Dubois, the national chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students, says the shift to digital textbooks may seem to lighten the financial load for students, but one must also factor in the price of a tablet or e-reader to access those materials. An iPad 2 will set a student back at least $519 before tax, while e-readers such as Kindle and Kobo still cost $300 and $140 respectively.
A more economical alternative for students who can't afford e-readers are rentals. Institutions including the University of Toronto, the University of Manitoba and the University of British Columbia now offer textbook rentals, and entrepreneurs have also entered the marketplace.
Ramona MacLeod launched Vancouver-based BigMama.ca last year after balking at the price of new textbooks when she enrolled in classes a few years ago as a mature student. Her team takes care of the buying end (they snap up books from retailers Amazon and Indigo but also buy them from students on Craigslist) and then rents them to students online. Though she wouldn't release any financial information, she says it has taken time to convince students to consider the rental option.
"We as a society have been inculcated that what you do is you buy," she says.
Gershon Hurwitz co-founded a similar portal, Textbookrental.ca, last year. The company has 11 depots in the Greater Toronto Area so customers can sell their gently used books, but distributes rentals nationally. In need of a copy of Robert Sunheimer's Clinical Laboratory Chemistry? Buy new for the list price of $101.85 or rent it for $68.04 and mail it back when the semester is over.
Getting rid of textbooks at a good price is the far greater challenge.
Professors usually insist students use only the latest edition of a textbook, which means many students aren't able to sell off their used ones because they've been knocked off the required reading list.
Mr. Chokshi suggests students sell their books as soon as the semester is over to get the most in exchange for them before the used bookstore shelves are flooded.
To stand out among the sea of similar texts, he also packaged his dog-eared class notes from the semester with the book he was selling and marketed it as a bonus.
"It just adds value to your sale – and for nothing," he says.
Another tactic he used was hovering outside the lecture hall of a course he'd taken the previous semester and making his sales pitch to students as they were exiting the class.
There's one almost surefire way of getting rid of old course materials, Mr. Chokshi says, but it's not one he was ever fond of: giving away a book to a peer free. "I haven't seen people borrow books from their friends," he says.
There's an underlying tension between debt-ridden students: "It's unfair on my part because I spent money on it," he says.
School: University of Ottawa
School: University of British Columbia
School: Memorial University
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Sources of The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Volume II: Since 1500 by Katharine J. Lualdi, 2008 ($16.68 to buy, unavailable to rent)
Purchase prices from Amazon.ca, rental prices from Textbookrental.ca
Editor's note: A previous version of this story had an incorrect speling for Akash Chokshi. This version has been corrected.